What to do with new instruments? Part 2 – Bass Oboe

Continuing on my series of how composers deal with new instruments, I now move to the Bass Oboe.  In order to differentiate it from the Heckelphone, I will only address scores that specify the instrument as a Bass Oboe.  With some of these works, there is some confusion as to the instrument that is intended.  For my purposes, only is the part is marked Heckelphone will I treat it as being written for such an instrument.

Loreé came out the their Bass (Baryton) Oboe in 1889, the same year that Fontaine-Besson unveiled their Contrabass Clarinet.  Unlike the Contrabass Clarinet, the Bass Oboe had to wait nearly 20 years before composers started to take note of it.

Delius 1908

Fredrick Delius was the first composer to use the Bass Oboe in a major work, his Dance Rhapsody 1. The piece opens with the Bass Oboe and the English Horn in a sinuous duet.  The part continues throughout the work, and at no time does the player double another instrument.  The odd thing about this part is its notation at sounding pitch in both treble and bass clef.  Because of this, the part has a somewhat higher tessitura than would be expected.  Delius treats it like a 2nd English Horn most of the time.  Only once does the Bass Oboe descend to the low B.  Range is a semi-tone shy of two octaves (low B to high B-flat).  The part is complex and well woven into the fabric of the orchestra.  At no point does the instrument stick out as being an “add-on” to an already existing ensemble.

Delius also used the Bass Oboe in Fenimore and Gerda, Paris, A Mass of Life, Requiem, and Songs of Sunset.

Holst 1914

Literature for the Bass Oboe begins and ends with Holst’s Planets.  Well, not really.  There are plenty of other pieces that call for the Bass Oboe, but none as significant as Holst’s work.

Holst has his Bass Oboe double Oboe 3.  Bass Oboe is played in Mars (1), Mercury (3), Saturn (5), Uranus (6), and Neptune (7); while Oboe 3 is used only in Venus (2) and Jupiter (4).  We can see that the bulk of the part is on the Bass Oboe.  In a 12 page long part, roughly 4 are for Oboe and 8 are for Bass Oboe.  The range of the part (Bass Oboe only) is a semi-tone shy of two octaves (exact same range as the Delius).  The majority of the part lies in the mid to lower range, but is not confined there.  The part has great agility and is equal to the parts for the other oboes (Oboe and English Horn).  There are several solos and exposed parts as well as essential ensemble playing.  When Holst does not need the low sound, in the peaceful Venus and the joyful Jupiter, he has the player pick up the regular Oboe.  The other movements has a more sinister edge where the Bass Oboe’s sound is perfect.  Holst uses standard notation with the Bass Oboe sounding one octave lower than written.

Holst never used the instrument again.

Grainger 1919

Since the primary focus of the blog is composing for band, it seems odd that one of the earliest works for the Bass Oboe is a work for band, Grainger’s “Children’s March.”  This work call for a prominent Bass Oboe part throughout, but it is most often played on the English Horn.  Oddly enough, there is no English Horn part in the score.  The part only descends below the range of the English Horn a few times, and those times are well covered by the rest of the band.

Grainger 1922

While Grainger wasn’t totally successful in his Bass Oboe scoring in the Children’s March, his score to The Warriors makes up for that.  Sadly, the score is nearly impossible to get my hands on, or else I would do a more in depth analysis of it.  But, what is evident is the minute-long solo in the middle of the piece for Bass Oboe.  Grainger is known for his “democratic” scoreing where everyone gets an equal part.  Solos like this are unheard of in his music (this may be the longest solo in any of his instrumental works).  The work is dedicated to Delius who first started the use of the Bass Oboe.

Grainger would use the Bass Oboe one more time in his career, in an odd arrangement of his Hill Song 1 where the Bass Oboe is a substitute for the Tenor Sarrusophone.  Strangely, this version has never been played…


What do all these works have in common? They are all English.  While the French were the ones to develop the Bass Oboe, the English were the first to exploit it.  In fact, we can find no major use of the Bass Oboe in French music at all.  Over in Germany, the Heckelphone was being exploited while in England the Bass Oboe was taking hold.  France was right out.

After these works, occasional pieces would crop up, but few managed to survive in the repertoire. More modern composers are making use of the instrument again and it is becoming more frequent, though not as frequent as the Contrabass Clarinet.

6 thoughts on “What to do with new instruments? Part 2 – Bass Oboe

  1. Apparently there was an oboe player working in Broadway pit orchestras in the 1930s who owned a bass oboe. A few shows of that period use the instrument. The cast recording of the 1983 revival of ON YOUR TOES includes a brief bass oboe solo in the dance interlude of “There’s a Small Hotel.” (That revival used Hans Spialek’s original orchestrations from 1936.) John McGlinn’s 1989 archival recording of ANYTHING GOES (using original orchestrations restored by Hans Spialek) has a brief bass oboe solo during a dance interlude in the title song. Of course, the orchestrators knew better than to rely on one player who owned a rare instrument. When I saw the ON YOUR TOES revival in London, the bass oboe solo was played on an English horn.

    1. Interesting! My guess is that player was the same player (Ross Gorman) who played for Paul Whiteman’s orchestra during the premier of Rhapsody in Blue who frequently doubled on Heckelphone.

  2. Pingback: What to do with new instruments? Part 4 – Heckelphone | Bandestration

  3. Matthew Banks

    For completeness sake, I listened carefully to the bass oboe solo (I can’t speak for the part’s range throughout the rest of the composition). The solo spans the instruments low B to a first space E in the treble clef (I have perfect pitch)

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